As he faces the possibility of increased scrutiny from what is likely to be a Republican-controlled House, Anthony Fauci on Tuesday signaled he is willing to go to the mat to justify the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and viral research programs.
“I’d be more than happy to discuss anything that we’ve done over the last several years with this outbreak, since I have nothing to hide and I can defend everything we’ve done,” Fauci said at the annual STAT Summit.
In a virtual conversation with Helen Branswell, STAT’s senior infectious diseases reporter, Fauci said it has been strange to watch himself become a lightning rod on the political trail, with some Republican candidates arguing he should be imprisoned, particularly after decades of being viewed as a nonpartisan expert whose counsel was sought by policymakers from both parties.
But he insisted he had not changed or become political himself. Rather, it was others turning his continued adherence to science and public health principles into political points.
“Because others choose to drive me into the political arena, does not mean I am in the political arena in what I do, what I think, what I say, what I advise,” Fauci said. He acknowledged that an anti-Fauci platform had become “red meat” to some conservative voters, but “that does not mean all of a sudden I have turned political.”
Branswell asked Fauci, 81, who has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for nearly four decades, if there was something he could have done differently early in the pandemic to avoid being cast as a political figure.
Fauci, without naming former President Donald Trump in the answer, said that couldn’t be avoided once he challenged Trump and other administration officials who undersold the threat from SARS-CoV-2 or who hyped therapies like hydroxychloroquine even after multiple studies showed they didn’t work.
“I had to, I didn’t like the idea, but I had to, to preserve my own scientific and personal integrity and to fulfill my obligation, which is not to any president, which is not to any party, it’s to the American public, so I had to do something that was very uncomfortable — to publicly disagree with and contradict the president of the United States,” Fauci said. “When he says this drug is a wonder drug, and it isn’t, or this virus is going to disappear like magic when it’s not.
“That triggered such a pushback on the part of the extremists that I became public enemy No. 1,” Fauci continued. “I didn’t decide and wake up one day, ‘I think I’m going to be public enemy No. 1.’ But I had a choice, I could either go with the flow of misinformation or push back. I pushed back, and now I’m in the position I’m in where I have to have federal agents guarding me because people want to kill me.”
Fauci, who has also served as President Biden’s chief medical adviser since the Biden administration took office in 2021, is stepping down from his government roles next month.
Some Senate Republicans, namely Rand Paul of Kentucky, had pledged to investigate Fauci, the Covid-19 response, and the origins of the coronavirus if they retook control of the chamber after the midterms. With the Democrats holding the Senate, Fauci won’t face the same scrutiny there.
But he pointed out that Republicans are likely to take control of the House. House Republicans have similarly vowed to launch Covid-related investigations.
“I welcome oversight,” Fauci said. “I have no problem with oversight. I’ve testified before Congress literally without hyperbole hundreds of times over the last 38 years, and I think the oversight process is a very healthy part of the government.”
In discussing his long career, Fauci said he was particularly proud of the world’s progress in treating HIV/AIDS as well as the PEPFAR program that has saved millions of lives globally from HIV. He lamented that even after decades of work, there is still no HIV vaccine, though he noted that scientists at NIAID and other institutions would continue that effort even after he left his posts.
Branswell also asked Fauci, famously a tireless worker who has said his latest career move is not a retirement, what he would do after leaving the government.
Fauci said he hopes his experience, and what he’s learned from that, could provide lessons for others — and that he remains energetic and passionate.
“I think I could contribute more by writing, reading, lecturing, and trying to inspire a younger generation of scientists to get involved,” he said. “I think I can do more that way than designing, yet again, another experiment in my lab.”
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